Magazine article The Spectator

The Invisible Men

Magazine article The Spectator

The Invisible Men

Article excerpt

Patrick MacNee, the original John Steed in the cheap'n'cheerful British telly series, turns up in the big-screen, big-budget Avengers - or rather his voice does. MacNee plays a ministry bureaucrat rendered invisible in some research mishap and now consigned to an office in the basement. It's a good thing we don't actually see him, because, if we did, we'd remember the sheer affability of MacNee's Steed. He's not a conventionally handsome leading man he has a dumplingy face - but he brought a bonhomous ease to the role of the unflappable secret agent: the bowler, the buttonholes and the Bollinger seemed like natural extensions of his charm; you can understand why swingin' dolly birds like Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson would dig such an ostensibly squaresville cat.

If you had to scour the world for the opposite of bonhomie, chances are you'd come up with Ralph Fiennes. Doing his usual `less is more' routine, Fiennes underplays to the point where he's almost as invisible as MacNee's cameo. In their own way, the clothes maketh the man: where MacNee's gear had its own kind of flamboyance, Fiennes, with the austerity he brings to every role this side of Ice Follies of 1934, opts for dark pinstripes: he looks like a trainee ledger clerk taking the Metropolitan Railway for his first day at a City bank. He never convincingly inhabits the kit: it becomes a costume, and eventually, in Fiennes's evasive performance, a suit of armour. As for his relationship with Uma Thurman's Mrs Peel, he showed more sexual chemistry as the sadistic camp commandant with urges towards his Jewish maid in Schindler's List. On the other hand, in the thin smile through which he looses the film's wan badinage, he manages to project more self-disgust than he ever did as Nazi boy. How many more reminders do we need that Fiennes isn't a movie star? This is a mean, grudging performance that sucks all the life out of the film: the guy's a bespoke cadaver. He doesn't even have the class of MacNee, who in public has stuck by the film and his successor, while Fiennes preferred to take the dough and then duck out of attending the premiere.

It's not all Fiennes's fault. Although Avengers fans have long debated the various merits of Steed's leading ladies, it's safe to say not even poor Linda Thorson (fresh out of acting school at the time she landed the part of Tara King) ever delivered such a one-note performance as Uma Thurman. Saving her energies for the British accent, Miss Thurman contents himself with a flatfooted archness. But even the accent only emphasises the wrongheadedness of the casting: we know Miss Thurman does not talk like that, which makes what should be effortlessly stylish seem merely mannered and contrived. …

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